It’s How the Light Gets in

For a slightly different version, see Jim Throgmorton, J.A. 2009. “It’s how the light gets in.” Iowa City Press-Citizen (March 10): 9A.

A couple of weeks ago the Iowa City Community School District’s Board conducted a public hearing on its Strategic Facilities Improvement Plan (SFIP). It didn’t go very well. Parents were angry and the Board members appeared defensive. Tension filled the room. (We’re all feeling pretty tense right now, aren’t we?)

As one of the hundred or so people in the audience that night, I had an interest in the Board’s action. My favorite little girl in the whole world lives in the Northside neighborhood and attends Horace Mann School. Like others in the audience, I worry that the School District pays insufficient attention to maintaining the physical quality of its older schools and to the effects of its actions on the city’s older neighborhoods.

But as a former city council member I also have a great deal of empathy for the School Board members. I deeply admire their willingness to commit their time and energy toward governing the School District well, and I don’t doubt for a second their desire to provide a quality education for all. Would that all School Districts throughout the country were overseen by a good a group as this.

Although empathizing with the Board members, I left the February 24 public hearing knowing that it could have been conducted far more effectively. At the risk of pontificating, I want to provide the School Board members with some advice about how to do it next time. It’s advice that I wish someone had given me 15 years ago when I was in a position similar to theirs. The advice comes partly from experience and partly from a course I teach about conflict resolution.

Picture this. The room is full of tired, anxious, fearful and at times angry parents who want the Board to affirm its commitment to investing in Mann and Longfellow and to keeping Roosevelt open. The Board dedicates the first 90 minutes of the meeting to a technical presentation by a staff member, a statement by a Gayle Kouda about how the SFIP had been developed, a half-hour Power Point presentation by Lane Plugge about the Plan’s content, and a half-hour discussion among Board members about what they thought of the Plan. Ever so slowly the second hand ticks. One of Plugge’s charts characterizes the Plan as “a blueprint for a long-range future,” but during the Board discussion Kouda describes it as only “a working document…a tool for us to use.” (I wonder: which of these is the real purpose?) Various Board members say the public “misunderstands” what the Plan is designed to accomplish and that the Board wants “to help you understand.” Tick, tick, tick. “This is just the beginning of the conversation,” Board members say to one another. “Truly,” a Board member says, “we appreciate that community input.” Tick, tick. With each passing minute I can feel tempers rising. “Let the people speak!” somebody cries out in exasperation. It’s good to have a room full of people “engaged with the discussion,” a Board member says. Tick. Boom.

Gad, I thought, this is a no-brainer. The President of the Board, Tony Cilek, could have greeted the audience with a genuine welcoming smile. Having solicited “feedback” from parents about the District’s Plan, she and other Board members and staff could have taken no more than 10-15 minutes to welcome people, lay out the agenda for the night, and indicate what they hoped to learn from the public during the hearing. She and other Board members could have displayed genuine pleasure that so many people had committed their own time and energy to read the SFIP, to come to the District’s office on a cold February night, and to share their assessment of the Plan with Board members. Instead of telling this very well-educated audience that they “misunderstand,” Board members could have acknowledged that one of the primary purposes of the hearing was to let people say how the facts should be weighed. (Lane Plugge clearly expressed one set of values: the purpose of the Plan is to achieve increased efficiency at reduced costs. Many parents expressed another: our neighborhoods matter.) Once the hearing had ended, Cilek could have thanked people for speaking and indicated how their views would be incorporated into the District’s final Plan.

In his lovely song, “Anthem,” Leonard Cohen sings:

“Ring the bells, the bells/That still can ring./Forget your perfect offering./There is a crack, a crack, in everything./That’s how the light gets in./That’s how the light gets in.”

There was a crack in the School District’s Plan. Parents saw it, and drew attention to it. Feedback like that should be welcomed and embraced. It’s how the light gets in.

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